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Home » Art and Culture News, Linguistic Geography, Myth of the Nation-State, Politics News, Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus

Brawl Breaks Out in Ukrainian Parliament Over Language Law

Submitted by on May 27, 2012 – 11:49 pm 6 Comments |  

On May 24, debates in Ukraine’s Parliament, the Rada, turned physical after members of opposition parties blocked access to the podium for the ruling Regions party lawmakers who sought to defend a language law, as can be seen from this video. The law had been proposed by the pro-Russian Regions party, under pressure from Moscow. The party’s head, President Viktor Yanukovych, whose mother tongue is Russian, promised to elevate Russian to the status of the second state language during his campaign for the presidency in 2009. However, he did not press the issue after coming to power in February 2010. Since then, Moscow has reproached Yanukovych for not delivering on his election promise and has complained that the language rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine are being violated.

According to the draft of the law, Russian-speaking children would be allowed to receive all their basic schooling in their home language. Also, people in areas where Russian predominates would no longer have to demonstrate a strong command of Ukrainian to work in regional administration. If passed, this law would entrench Russian as a “regional language”, which, according to opponents of the law, would eventually lead to Ukrainian disappearing from use. However, Russian is already a de facto regional language, as it clearly dominates in the Donbass mining area near the eastern border with Russia—which happens to be Yanukovych’s power base—as well as in the southeast and the Crimea. Ukrainian—currently, the sole state language, in accordance with the country’s constitution—predominates in the centre and in the west. The rift between Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions correlates very closely with voting patterns (see the map posted above). As can be seen from this map, during the 2010 Presidential Election, Russian-speaking areas voted for Yanukovych, whereas Ukrainian-speaking regions gave their votes to Yulia Timoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party. A similar split was observed during Legislative Election of 2006 and 2007, when Russian-speaking areas voted predominantly for the Regions’ Party, whereas Ukrainian-speaking areas gave their votes to the Timoshenko Bloc and “Our Ukraine” party. In fact, the split has been established as early as the 2004 Presidential Election, when Viktor Yanukovych received support mostly from the same areas in the south-east, while the Ukrainian-speaking zone voted overwhelmingly for Viktor Yushchenko. Given this entrenched language-voting correlation, it is no surprise that opposition parties view the proposed language law as a cynical move by the Regions Party to win back disenchanted voters at the forthcoming parliamentary election in October and to mobilize Moscow’s support by keeping Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Ukraine is not the only post-Soviet country where proposed changes to the linguistic status quo provoke an emotional debate. In February 2012, Latvia held a referendum on the issue of making Russian a second official language. As noted in an earlier GeoCurrents post, the election attracted a large turnout, more than 70 percent of the electorate. The proposition was decisively defeated, gaining only about a quarter of the vote, chiefly in the urban areas of the country and in the largely Russian-speaking southeastern region. One significant difference between the Ukrainian and Latvian situations, however, is that in Latvia knowledge of the national language is a prerequisite for citizenship, whereas Ukraine imposes no such requirement. As a result, in Latvia Russian-speakers with no knowledge of the national language cannot vote, whereas in Ukraine they can. It is, therefore, more likely that the new language policy will be adopted in Ukraine, the recent outburst of “unparliamentary behavior” notwithstanding.


Update (3 July 2012): Seven MPs from the Our Ukraine–People’s Self-Defense Bloc conduct a hunger strike in Kiev over this proposed language law, which has passed in the second reading.If the law is signed President Yanukovych, Russian will gain the status of the regional language in 13 out of 27 regions of Ukraine.






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  • Mike

    I know that in southeastern Ukraine Russian, not Ukrainian is a dominant
    language after long subjugation of Ukraine by Russian imperialism in
    the past and as a result of past forceful artificial Russification of
    Ukraine. But in my view historical injustice to Ukraine by Russia must
    be rectified in all respects, and the Ukrainian language must again be
    the major language in southeastern Ukraine too because according to the
    last official census in Ukraine over 76% of citizens of Ukraine claimed
    to be of Ukrainian ethnicity. Russian linguistic imperialism on the
    territory of other nations outside Russia must end. It’s long long
    overdue. Of course Russian people in Ukraine can communicate in Russian
    between themselves and the Russian community in Ukraine must have
    opportunities to preserve their language and culture, but Russians
    living in Ukraine must also know and use Ukrainian in communication with
    Ukrainian people. I think Russians in Ukraine and the Russian
    authorities try to impose Russian as the main language in Ukraine even
    now, and to restrict the use of Ukrainian as much as possible by
    preserving the past Russification of Ukraine. It is long overdue to
    teach, to learn and to use more Ukrainian than Russian in the media and
    in institutions in Ukraine.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      It’s a bit more complicated than your black-and-white picture (bad Russians, good Ukrainians) suggests. Most importantly, while the official language can be legally established, what people actually speak (and therefore use in official spheres as well) cannot. As you can see from the maps in the post, Eastern Ukraine is predominantly Russian speaking, so although Ukrainian is the official language there, most people continue to speak Russian and it’s hardly of any use to try to impose the Ukrainian language on them.

    • SirBedevere

      Down with linguistic imperialism. All Ukrainians must be made to speak Scythian.

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Why not go for Proto-Indo-European then! Might help our cause in that scientific debate too, eh? :)

        • SirBedevere

          You have unmasked my Scythian linguistic imperialism.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            I think I might have had some inkling of it before :)

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